This morning our scandal-addled zeitgeist turns its attention to professional football, where the New England Patriots stand accused, and more or less convicted, of deflating balls for a playoff game versus the arch-rival Indianapolis Colts. Why deflate a football? It makes it easier to grip, and thus easier to throw with accuracy. The most immediate beneficiary: Pats quarterback Tom Brady. The Patriots demolished the Colts and advanced to the Super Bowl, an event better known as the Puppy Bowl of sports.
The report issuing from league offices does not blame Brady for the underinflated footballs. Instead, the league throws a flag at a couple of mooks employed by the Patriots, while letting the evidence heavily suggest that Brady knew about the practice.
Which seems more impossible: rule-bending in pro sports, or cheating by a guy as good-looking as Tom Brady? We don’t have the bandwidth to settle that kind of philosophical quandary. But we do publish Sport, Play, and Ethical Reflection, Randolph Feezell’s acclaimed analysis of the nature, the attraction, and—appropriate to this post—the limits of sport. Let’s go to Feezell for the kind of discussion you will not hear on sports talk radio:
Leaman and Lehman have argued persuasively that deliberately violating a written rule is not necessarily morally wrong, may be part of the game, and does not entail that one is not playing the game. However, by including in the analysis of cheating a reference to the customs of shared latent agreements surrounding a sport, what I have called the prescriptive atmosphere of a sport, we must conclude that they have not been able to show that cheating can be equated with “deliberately violating a written rule.” Because cheating involves the attempt to gain an unfair advantage over your opponent by violating the agreements underlyig the game, cheating is morally impermissible, can never be part of the game, and disqualifies the cheater from competing and thus winning.